‘Listen to communities’ to direct $650bn infra spend, Cisneros urges

The former HUD secretary and American Triple I Partners chairman helped put together a survey of local public officials identifying what projects are most needed across the US.

Any infrastructure plan the federal government considers during the early part of the Biden administration should focus on a “bottom-up” strategy that responds to needs highlighted by local officials, according to a new policy report.

Local and regional officials identified 1,807 “high-priority” infrastructure projects across the US in a survey conducted by the Kinder Institute of Urban Research at Rice University in Texas, along with Henry Cisneros, former secretary of housing and urban development and chairman of the investment firm American Triple I Partners.

Along with the survey, Kinder has launched a database cataloguing these projects, which represent around $650 billion in estimated spending.

“If you want to allocate infrastructure to the things that will have the most impact on America’s future economy, then it’s logical to listen to what people who know their communities best say they need,” Cisneros told Infrastructure Investor in an interview.

At a time of economic duress due to fighting covid-19, what these officials are saying is needed to rebuild their communities, according to the report, is infrastructure improvements addressing how life has been changed by the pandemic, ongoing impacts of climate change, and options to bridge a growing divide between urban and rural population centres.

“Most of these challenges predated the pandemic, but covid-19 has highlighted their urgency,” the report stated.

Transportation was the most-cited sector in need of capital, making up 37 percent of the more than 1,800 projects that officials say they need. But in addition to sprawling highway developments, many of the projects being sought relate to mass transit, according to the report.

Restoring public facilities, particularly hospitals and emergency services, is the second-highest sector in need at 33 percent, followed by water and wastewater treatment (15 percent), energy and renewables (10 percent) and communications (5 percent).

President Joe Biden campaigned last year on a pledge to make infrastructure reform a key part of his vision to revitalise the US’s pandemic-stricken economy. While no official plans have been put forth, he and his aides have been consistent in stating that any infrastructure push will target climate-friendly improvements in both big cities and small-town America.

Cisneros said there is ample opportunity to do that, noting the physical requirements of building renewables projects make that sector well-suited to support development near rural communities.

“Where do you build windfarms and solar farms? Obviously not in metropolitan areas, but nearby, and you can create jobs and development in these smaller communities,” Cisneros explained.

Biden has yet to outline how such a large swathe of improvements will be paid for and whether the private sector will have a large role to play. But given the size of the US’s needs, according to Cisneros, non-government capital will have to be in the mix.

“I think decision-makers across the country – private, states, counties, cities – know that this cannot all be done with direct federal dollars. There just isn’t enough,” Cisneros said. “And so, other sources of capital will have to be matched to meet these needs.”